Down Goes Brown has a great post on why hockey predictions are almost always wrong. I generally try to avoid making predictions for similar reasons, especially at the team level where there are just too many variables and too much randomness to worry about. The chances get a little better when we start looking at individual players, although even then the percentages over a single season have a lot of impact on those results (hands up, everyone who thinks Loui Eriksson is going to score 36 goals on 178 shots again). However, I am going to throw caution to the wind anyway and make one prediction for this upcoming season, because I think that it has a very high likelihood of being correct. That prediction is that Carey Price will have a bounceback year in 2009-10.
In case anyone has forgotten over the long offseason, Carey Price burst onto the scene in 2007-08, putting up a 2.56/.920 line for the Conference champion Montreal Canadiens and performing admirably for the first round of the playoffs against Boston before hitting a hiccup or two against the Flyers. Price's numbers then took a significant step backward last year, dropping to 2.83/.905. Price then went 4.11/.878 in the playoffs as the injury-riddled Canadiens were completely outclassed by the top-seeded Bruins.
Based on that two season sample, the trend doesn't look particularly good for Carey Price. Some put a lot of weight on his playoff sample especially, and as a result are skeptical of Price's ability to become a top goalie in the NHL. I think that opinion is likely misguided. There are a number of indicators that I like to look when trying to estimate future performance, and they seem to be positive across the board for the Habs' young netminder.
The biggest factor is Price's age. He just turned 22 on August 16. When we look at guys like Price and Steve Mason, we can sometimes forget that few goalies play well at the NHL level in their early 20s. I looked at how all the goalies in the league in the post-lockout period did at different ages (excluding Price himself):
age 21: .896
age 22: .899
age 23: .907
Price's even strength performance so far in his career has been quite strong. Over the last two years his EV SV% ranks 9th in the league among goalies with at least 80 starts. The only goalies in front of him are pretty much the cream of the crop at the NHL level: Thomas, Luongo, Vokoun, Brodeur, Fleury, Giguere, Bryzgalov, Backstrom.
It is difficult to predict how well the team in front of him will play, given Montreal's offseason overhaul. Montreal did hire a new coach, Jacques Martin, who is known for his focus on systems and defence. The team also improved its blueline depth and should be stronger at even strength. Whether the Habs are a better team next year I'm not sure, but I think there is a good chance that they will be better defensively, which would make Price's job easier.
Finally, streaks can have a big impact on the success or failure of an individual season. One terrific or one awful month can put a goalie either in the running or out of contention for the Vezina. Extreme results like that are less likely to occur the next season. For Carey Price this is a good thing, since his season wasn't really all that bad outside of two months. He had a strong start, was awful in January and February, and then recovered towards the end of the year.Here is the breakdown of Price's career so far, splitting out January and February of 2009:
Jan and Feb '09: 2-8-1, 3.82, .866
Rest of career: 45-20-12, 2.54, .918
One thing I find particularly interesting is that Price's 2009 struggles led to widespread criticism that he was not mentally tough enough to handle the pressure in Montreal. This despite most scouts agreeing that Price's unflappability and mental strength were among his best attributes as a prospect. It is possible that some of Price's playoff performances were adversely affected by the pressure, but it seems unlikely that his biggest strength would suddenly become his biggest weakness almost overnight.
In my opinion much of what is said about a goalie's mental abilities is merely an attempt to rationalize randomness. That is not to say that there aren't any goalies who are mentally tough or mentally weak, just that a few bad months or a playoff series here or there are not nearly enough evidence to make that claim. Especially when the goalie in question is playing in Montreal, where the "he can't handle the pressure" narrative is the journalist's go-to rationalization for poor performance. Over the last 10 years, Montreal ranks 4th in the league in total save percentage, which doesn't really suggest that its goaltenders have been stumbling under the intense pressure. That's still apparently not enough to dissuade journalists from writing sparkling copy about Montreal's goalie being the "The Loneliest Man in Sports".
The signs seem to point to good things for Carey Price in 2009-10. Nothing is certain, of course, since goalie performance is variable and most young goalies don't develop in a straight line, but I think it's a pretty good bet. I doubt Price's winning percentage will be quite as high as it was in 2007-08, unless I'm misjudging Gainey's moves, but his other numbers could easily return to a similar range (~.915) this coming season.